Monthly Archives: November 2009

Microsoft’s Secret Giveaway

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

Sometimes it feels like the bane of my existence is my office phone. It’s so bad that I rarely answer it, preferring to forward it to Google Voice where I can peruse the barely readable transcripts just well enough to filter out the 90% cold sales calls I receive. So what a pleasure it was to answer my desk phone on Thursday and have an illuminating conversation with my Microsoft Licensing representative. He called to tell me that I own some awesome benefits that come with my Software Assurance program. I’m betting that I’m not the only one who was clueless about these benefits.

Microsoft Licensing, as you know, is the little-known tenth circle of hell. It’s a conceptual labyrinth of terms and conditions that was likely conceived by a team of the writers of the original “Prisoner” series with the advice of contract attorneys that graduated from law school 30 years ago and have never since seen the light of day.

Software Assurance is the tax we pay on our MicroSoft purchases that allows us to upgrade to the newest versions without paying upgrade fees (as long as we’ve paid our software assurance fees, of course). I assume that this is of interest to Idealware readers because most of us pick up a lot of our MS software from Techsoup Stock, and the Techsoup Stock donations come with Software Assurance, not without.

But Microsoft isn’t evil; they’re just bureaucratic, and every now and then a few smart people step up out of the morass and do things that I appreciate. These Software Assurance benefits include:

The Microsoft Home Use Program provides staff with ridiculously steep discounts on MS Office. Register this benefit, and the allowed number of users (which I’m unclear as to how they calculate) at your company can purchase MS Office 2007 Ultimate Edition (or Office 2008 for Mac) for $9.95. That’s not a trial edition, and it’s the opposite of crippled — Ultimate is the “everything but the kitchen sink” edition and it comes with a license key.Microsoft ELearning is a series of online classes in standard MS products like Word and Excel, and Server products like MS SQL Server or Windows 2003. I did note that the list of available classes that my rep sent me looked a little behind the times; no 2008 or 2010 products covered, but many of us aren’t on the bleeding edge anyway.

Microsoft Technet gives you access to forums and experts, as well as evaluation copies of new technologies. For example, as I write this, I just learned that I can pick up Office 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 betas via my MSDN or Technet subscriptions to try.

And the Office Multi-Language Packs let you deploy office in additional languages.

This isn’t fluff. We’ve been paying full price for Office at home (more than we do at work) and I’ve purchased E-Training on MS products and an MSDN subscription (fairly equivalent to Technet) because I had no idea that I already owned them. It makes me feel much better about what seemed like a pre-emptive insurance program that makes me commit to the next version of MS products before I’m ready to make that commitment, at times.

Of course, this is smart business for Microsoft. With Google announcing that their Google Apps offering will be on a feature par with Office within a year, and OpenOffice under active development as a pretty comparable alternative, you don’t want your business customers to get too comfortable with those free alternatives at home. It’s just surprising to me that, for years, this was buried in the small print section of eOpen, and not broadcast widely. So I’m doing MS a favor and blowing the horn on this one.

To access these benefits, log onto eOpen (which I hope you’re using to manage MS licenses!) and once you’ve signed in and clicked “unhide licenses”, find your last Techsoup order (or a similar large purchase) and open it up. The very first link in the license detail should be “Start and Manage your Software Assurance Benefits”. Clicking on that will pop you to a paragraph that includes a link to the “Software Assurance Benefits Management Tool”. Click on that to get the benefits. The more MS software you’ve bought, the more tedious this will be: there are benefits associated with each Software Assurance purchase, so you’ll need to register this way for every relevant order. But it sure beats paying for these things at Best Buy!

Why Geeks (like Me) Promote Transparency

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.
Mizukurage.jpg
Public Domain image by Takada

Last week, I shared a lengthy piece that could be summed up as:

“in a world where everyone can broadcast anything, there is no privacy, so transparency is your best defense.”

(Mind you, we’d be dropping a number of nuanced points to do that!)

Transparency, it turns out, has been a bit of a meme in nonprofit blogging circles lately. I was particularly excited by this post by Marnie Webb, one of the many CEO’s at the uber-resource provider and support organization Techsoup Global.

Marnie makes a series of points:

Meaningful shared data, like the Miles Per Gallon ratings on new car stickers or the calorie counts on food packaging help us make better choices;But not all data is as easy to interpret;Nonprofits have continually been challenged to quantify the conditions that their missions address;

Shared knowledge and metrics will facilitate far better dialog and solutions than our individual efforts have;

The web is a great vehicle for sharing, analyzing and reporting on data;

Therefore, the nonprofit sector should start defining and adopting common data formats that support shared analysis and reporting.

I’ve made the case before for shared outcomes reporting, which is a big piece of this. Sharing and transparency aren’t traditional approaches to our work. Historically, we’ve siloed our efforts, even to the point where membership-based organizations are guarded about sharing with other members.

The reason that technologists like Marnie and I end up jumping on this bandwagon is that the tech industry has modeled the disfunction of a siloed approach better than most. early computing was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. If you regularly used Lotus 123, Wordperfect and dBase (three of the most popular business applications circa 1989) on your MS-DOS PC, then hitting “/“, F7 or “.” were the things you needed to know in order to close those applications respectively. For most of my career, I stuck with PCs for home use because I needed compatibility with work, and the Mac operating system, prior to OSX, just couldn’t easily provide that.

The tech industry has slowly and painfully progressed towards a model that competes on the sales and services level, but cooperates on the platform side. Applications, across manufacturers and computing platforms, function with similar menus and command sequences. Data formats are more commonly shared. Options are available for saving in popular, often competitive formats (as in Word’s “Save As” offering Wordperfect and Lotus formats). The underlying protocols that fuel modern operating systems and applications are far more standardized. Windows, Linux and MacOS all use the same technologies to manage users and directories, network systems and communicate with the world. Microsoft, Google, Apple and others in the software world are embracing open standards and interoperability. This makes me, the customer, much less of an innocent bystander who is constantly sniped by their competitive strategies.

So how does this translate to our social service, advocacy and educational organizations? Far too often, we frame cooperation as the antithesis to competition. That’s a common, but crippling mistake. The two can and do coexist in almost every corner of our lives. We need to adopt a “rising tide” philosophy that values the work that we can all do together over the work that we do alone, and have some faith that the sustainable model is an open, collaborative one. Looking at each opportunity to collaborate from the perspective of how it will enhance our ability to accomplish our public-serving goals. And trusting that this won’t result in the similarly-focused NGO down the street siphoning off our grants or constituents.

As Marnie is proposing, we need to start discussing and developing data standards that will enable us to interoperate on the level where we can articulate and quantify the needs that our mission-focused organizations address. By jointly assessing and learning from the wealth of information that we, as a community of practice collect, we can be far more effective. We need to use that data to determine our key strategies and best practices. And we have to understand that, as long as we’re treating information as competitive data; as long as we’re keeping it close to our vests and looking at our peers as strictly competitors, the fallout of this cold war is landing on the people that we’re trying to serve. We owe it to them to be better stewards of the information that lifts them out of their disadvantaged conditions.

Security and Privacy in a Web 2.0 World

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.
A Tweet from Beth

Yes, we do Twitter requests!

To break down that tweet a bit, kanter is the well-known Beth Kanter of Beth’s blog. pearlbear is former Idealware blogger and current contributor Michelle Murrain, and Beth asked us, in the referenced blog post, to dive a bit into internet security and how it contrasts with internet privacy concerns. Michelle’s response, offers excellent and concise definitions of security and privacy as they apply to the web, and then sums up with a key distinction: security is a set of tools for protecting systems and information. The sensitivity of that data (and need for privacy) is a matter of policy. So the next question is, once you have your security systems and policies in place, what happens when the the policies are breached?

Craft a Policy that Minimizes Violations

Social media is casual media. The Web 2.0 approach is to present a true face to the world, one that interacts with the public and allows for individuals, with individual tastes and opinions, to share organizational information online. So a strict rule book and mandated wording for your talking points are not going to work.

Your online constituents expect your staff to have a shared understanding of your organization’s mission and objectives. But they also expect the CEO, the Marketing Assistant and the volunteer Receptionists to have real names (and real pictures on their profiles); their own online voices; and interests they share that go beyond the corporate script. It’s not a matter of venturing too far out of the water — in fact, that could be as much of a problem as staying too close to the prepared scripts. But the tone that works is the one of a human being sharing their commitment and excitement about the work that they (and you) do.

Expect that the message will reflect individual interpretations and biases. Manage the messaging to the key points, and make clear the areas that shouldn’t be discussed in public. Monitor the discussion, and proactively mentor (as opposed to chastising) staff who stray in ways that violate the policy, or seem capable of doing so.

The Case for Transparency

Transparency assumes that multiple voices are being heard; that honest opinions are being shared, and that organizations aren’t sweeping the negative issues under the virtual rug. Admittedly, it’s a scary idea that your staff, your constituents, and your clients should all be free to represent you. The best practice of corporate communications, for many years, was to run all messaging through Marketing/Communications experts and tightly control what was said. I see two big reasons for doing otherwise:

  • We no longer have a controlled media.

Controlled messaging worked when opening your own TV or Radio Station was prohibitively expensive. Today, YouTube, Yelp and Video Blogs are TV Stations. Twitter and Facebook Status are radio stations. The investment cost to speak your mind to a public audience has just about vanished.

  • We make more mistakes by under-communicating than we do by over-communicating.

Is the importance of hiding something worth the cost of looking like you have something to hide? At the peak of the dot com boom, I hired someone onto my staff at about $10k more (annually) than current staff in similar roles were making. An HR clerk accidentally sent the offer letter to my entire staff. The fallout was that I had meaningful talks about compensation with each of my staff; made them aware that they were getting market (or better) in a rapidly changing market, and that we were keeping pace on anniversary dates. Prior to the breach, a few of my staff had been wrongly convinced that they were underpaid in their positions. The incident only strengthened the trust between us.

The Good, the Bad, and the Messenger

Your blog should allow comments, and — short of spam, personal attacks and incivility — shouldn’t be censored. A few years ago, a former employee of my (former) org managed to register the .com extension of our domain name and put up a web site criticizing us. While the site didn’t get a lot of hits, he did manage to find other departed staff with axes to grind, and his online forum was about a 50-50 mix of people trashing us and others defending. After about a month, he went in and deleted the 50% of forum messages that spoke up for our organization, leaving the now one-sided, negative conversation intact. And that was the end of his forum; nobody ever posted there again.

There were some interesting lessons here for us. He had a lot of inside knowledge that he shared, with no concern or allegiance to our policy. And he was motivated and well-resourced to use the web to attack us, But, in the end, we didn’t see any negative impact on our organization. The truth was, it was easy to separate his bias from his “inside scoops”, and hard to paint us in a very negative light, because the skeletons that he let out of our closet were a lot like anybody else’s.

What this proves is that message delivery accounts for the messenger. Good and bad tweets and blog posts about your organization will be weighed by the position and credibility of the tweeter or blogger.

Transparency and Constituent Data Breaches

Two years ago, a number of nonprofits were faced with a difficult decision when a popular hosted eCRM service was compromised, and account information for donors was stolen by one or more hackers. Thankfully, this wasn’t credit card information, but it included login details, and I’m sure that we all know people who use the same password for their online giving as they do for other web sites, such as, perhaps, their online banking. This was a serious breach, and there was a certain amount of disclosure from the nonprofits to their constituents that was mandated.

Strident voices in the community called for full disclosure, urging affected nonprofits to put a warning on the home page of their web sites. Many of the organizations settled for alerting every donor that was potentially compromised via phone and/or email, determining that their unaffected constituents might not be clear on how the breach happened or what the risks were, and would simply take the home page warning as a suggestion to not donate online.

To frame this as a black and white issue, demanding that it be treated with no discretion, is extreme. The seriousness and threat that resulted from this particular breach was not a simple thing to quantify or explain. So it boils down to a number of factors:

  • Scope: If all or most of your supporters are at risk, or the number at risk is in the six figure range, it’s probably more responsible, in the name of protecting them, to broadcast the alert widely. If, as in the case above, those impacted are the ones donate online, then that’s probably not close to the amount that would fully warrant broad disclosure, as even the strident voice pointed out.
  • Risk: Will your constituents understand that the notice is informational, and not an admission of guilt or irresponsibility in handling their sensitive data? Alternatively, if this becomes public knowledge, would your lack of transparency look like an admission of guilt? You should be comfortable with your decision, and able to explain it.
  • Consistency: Some nonprofits have more responsibility to model transparency than others. If the Sunlight Foundation was one of the organizations impacted, it’s a no-brainer. Salvation Army? Transparency isn’t referenced on their “Positions” page.
  • Courtesy: Some constituencies are more savvy about this type of thing than others. If the affected constituents have all been notified, and they represent a small portion of the donor base, it’s questionable whether scaring your supporters in the name of openness is really warranted.

Since alternate exposure, in the press or community, is likely to occur, the priority is to have a consistent policy about how and when you broadcast information about security breaches. Denying that something has had happened in any public forum would be irresponsible and unethical, and most likely come right back at you. Not being able to explain why you chose not to publicize it on your website could also have damaging consequences. Erring on the side of alerting and protecting those impacted by security breaches is the better way to go, but the final choice has to weigh in all of the risks and factors.

Conclusion

All of my examples assume you’re doing the right things. You have justifiable reasons for doing things that might be considered provocative. Your overall efforts are mission-focused. And the reasons for privacy regarding certain information are that it needs to be private (client medical records, for example); it supports your mission-based objectives by being private, and/or it respects the privacy of people close to the information.

No matter how well we protect our data, the walls are much thinner than they used to be. Any unfortunate tweet can “go viral”. We can’t put a lock on our information that will truly secure it. So it’s important to manage communications with an understanding that information will be shared. Protect your overall reputation, and don’t sweat the minor slips that reveal, mostly, that you’re not a paragon of perfection, maybe, but a group of human beings, struggling to make a difference under the usual conditions.

Drupal 101: Look and Feel

I’m wrapping up the Drupal 101 series with some talk about Drupal themes, and some additional info on topics that we’ve already covered. The goal of these posts is to give new Drupal administrators an idea about how Drupal works, and some pointers to the key add-ons and resources in the broad Drupal ecosystem. For reference’ sake, we started with an intro, moved on to Modules, and then covered navigation. So, now that we have a functional web site, what does it look like?

Getting Themes

Drupal comes with five or six themes to choose from, and, if you use them, then your site will look very, um, uninspired. This might not be a problem if your goal is not to impress your visitors, but simply provide information or functionality, but, if you’re putting up a website for your organization, you want one that stands out from the crowd. So you have two choices: you can find a better, less common theme, or you can customize one of the default themes.

The first place to go is to Drupal Theme Garden. This is where many Drupal theme designers share their work. Here, you can either find a theme to use (or customize for your use), or get a good idea about the types of things you can do with your theme.

Customizing Themes

From the Administration menu, you can modify any theme’s main text elements, deciding whether or not to display your site’s mission or slogan, name or logo. And you can replace the default “droplet” logo with your own logo (a no-brainer!). Assuming that you’ve started with a theme that you really like, this might be enough. But, if you want to do more serious customizations, such as moving the logo to the center of your header or changing the site colors, you’re going to need basic web 4.0 programming skills and, most likely, some level of comfort with the PHP scripting language.

Most themes consist of one or more style sheets, a number of “tpl” files with PHP/HTML code laying out various page elements, such as blocks, footers and sidebars, and one called page.tpl.php that establishes the overall page layout. The main styles are usually stored in styles.css, and you can make a lot of changes to your site’s appearance here, modifying default background colors and images, placing and resizing content.

If that’s not enough, most customizations can be done using WordPress’s internal macros and functions, meaning that you won’t have to worry about assigning variables or what goes into the foreach loops. WordPress has simple commands that you can insert into a page to loop through your posts and display them or list your categories in the sidebar. A nice breakdown of the WordPress functions can be found at WpExplorer.com.

If you do modify the stylesheets and templates, make sure that you are storing your themes in sites/default folder and that you’re properly backing up whenever you do an upgrade. If you modify theme files in the main themes folder, and then upgrade to, say, a Drupal security fix, your modifications will be overwritten. In general, themes remain functional from dot release to dot release (e.g., what worked for Drupal 6.1 still works in 6.9), but the Drupal maintainers often make dramatic changes in number versions, so don’t assume that your theme in Drupal 6.9 will not be messed up if you upgrade to Drupal 7 (coming soon).

More Installation Options

In the first Drupal 101 post, I mentioned Fantastico, a two-click installer for Drupal available on most hosting services that use the cPanel site management interface. I subsequently ran into this useful article about Elefante and Simplescripts. These are packages that you can use to install a variety of popular open source applications, including Drupal.

In addition to application installers, there are other options for installing Drupal:

Customized Drupal installations like Open Atrium and Acquia come with more modules and functionality.There’s been some development and discussion about Installation Profiles, a Drupal add-on functionality that lets you define additional installation details, such as module defaults and inclusion of additional modules and data for distributing custom Drupal installations.

Conclusion

What I hope this Drupal 101 series has done is to offer some context and guidance for people new to Drupal who are about to give it a try, and some backing to my initial proposition that Drupal’s strength is it’s flexibility. Along the way, I’ve received tweets asking “Why Drupal?” and my answer is that Drupal isn’t the only CMS out there, or necessarily the best one for your web site. There are a huge variety of commercial and open source options. In fact, my personal website runs on a combination of Frog CMS and WordPress, because I wanted a simple tool for integrating RSS feeds, which Frog provides, and a powerful blogging platform. On the other hand, last week the White House ditched their commercial CMS for Drupal. So this series might also inspire you to look elsewhere, particularly if a more traditional, tree-structured content management interface will work better for you than Drupal’s layout by association model. Whichever way you go, we suffer more from a surfeit of good options than a lack of same.